I Was Brodsky’s Minder
I simply cannot encourage you enough to read Philip Davis’s blog series on Moreover . I love it. Davis, the author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, also seems to be a born blogger. Below is part three of his blog series, which originally appeared in here.
I thought I would get braver as I got older but (aged 54), not so. I remember the poet Joseph Brodsky saying to me, near the end of his life, “I used to be one of the Strong”—it was across a drink in a Liverpool bar—”but not now.”
I was Brodsky’s Minder. For two days. He came to Liverpool to do a lecture, a reading and a seminar. Three of us went to welcome him at a stiff dinner in a local hotel restaurant. Our hostess, whom Brodsky lated named The Lady, started off the first course with a great gush of the inauthentic. “Mr Brodsky”, she intoned, “I have noticed that so many of your poems contain the word ‘soul’.” “Madam”, was the immediate retort, “So many of my poems contain the word ‘shit’.”
It wasn’t pretty but it was pretty effective. He calmly looked around the table to see the effect, for or against at a stroke. He could tell my eyes were laughing, and that is how I was immediately enrolled as the Minder. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I said just before the next official dinner. “Just keep me away from The Lady,” was all he asked. I wedged myself between. He was smoking filter-tip cigarettes all night, despite his heart condition, and always ruthlessly pulled off the filter before he lit them. He could be a dangerous man to others too, particularly Germans. But I myself found in him only warmth, charm and excitement. He immediately decided he was going to buy a house in Liverpool. For my part, the attraction wasn’t that he was a famous poet: the art seemed no more than a bye-product of everything else that he was.
The actress Susannah York was also in Liverpool at the time of his visit and, knowing her a little, I invited her to hear Brodsky give his reading. He read his English poems, but halfway-through suddenly stopped and apologetically said that this was boring, and abruptly began to read in Russian instead. I don’t believe those people who tell you the sense still comes across even if you don’t understand the language. But what came across was Brodsky’s singing passion, the sense of his lost homeland, and the great crying tradition of Russian declamatory verse.
Later, when Susannah York had gone off to her evening performance in the Liverpool Playhouse, I was walking Brodsky to his hotel and suggested we go on to meet up with her at the stage door after the show. He couldn’t walk that far. But they were staying at the same hotel and he decided to leave her a note instead, suggesting they breakfast together the following morning. I left him to write his note in peace there in the lobby of the Liverpool Adelphi and came back in five minutes. He was still standing there, the paper blank before him. I wandered off again and came back in a few minutes. Still nothing. “For God’s sake”, I said, losing patience, “You are a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. It’s only a note.” He looked at me: “These things take time”, he said. Then over his shoulder I watched him gradually write out in silent winning tones: “If it would not be too boring for you, could you manage breakfast with me tomorrow?”
Some people are events. It has not been an ordinary visit, he said to me at the close. “Phyeel”, he said to me as we parted, “We have to survive.”
It’s terrible when the great ones die, and leave a void filled only by remembering them and writing about them. I ended up becoming the biographer not of Brodsky but of Malamud—whom I never met. But I recall exactly where I was standing in our kitchen, when a friend came to tell me that he had just heard that Bernard Malamud had died. 18 March 1986. I remember thinking: So now I will never meet him. It was a silly thing to think because I had never had any plan to do so. And the publisher Roger Straus told me, years later, rather disdainfully, that Malamud was no charismatic Brodsky. But nearly twenty years later I met the man through his papers: I don’t know whether to put in the word “only” before “through”. The last note Malamud wrote himself on a small square of white paper found on his desk was the self-exhortation, “Don’t be fragile”, four times.